Mr. President, in my capacity as chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I take this opportunity to let my colleagues know that on Sunday, April 8, Roma from around the world will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the inaugural meeting of World Romani Congress. In countries across Europe as well as in North America, Roma will gather together to demonstrate solidarity with each other and to draw attention to the human rights violations they continue to face.
Roma are a dispersed minority, present in virtually every country in the region covered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, including the United States. They first arrived in Europe around the 13th century, after migrating from Northern India and their language, Romani, is related to Sanskrit. Roma were enslaved in what is now modern Romania and Moldova until 1864 and, in much of the rest of Europe, the Romani experience has been marked by pronounced social exclusion.
The single most defining experience for Roma in the 20th century was the Holocaust, known in Romani as the Porrajmos, the Devouring. During the war itself, Roma were targeted for death by the Nazis based on their ethnicity. At least 23,000 Roma were brought to Auschwitz. Almost all of them perished in the gas chambers or from starvation, exhaustion, or disease.
Not quite a year ago, the Helsinki Commission, which I now chair, held a hearing on Romani human rights issues. I heard from a panel of six witnesses, four of whom were Romani, about the problems Roma continue to face. Unfortunately, since the fall of Communism, the situation for Roma in many post-Communist countries has actually gotten worse. As Ina Zoon said, “the defense of Roma rights in Europe is probably one of the biggest failures of the human rights battle in the last ten years.”
The more I learn about the plight of Roma, the more I am struck by certain parallels with the experience of American Indians here in our own country.
Increasingly, Roma have begun to raise their voices not in search of special treatment, but for an opportunity to freely exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination. At the OSCE’s Summit of Heads of State and Government, held in Istanbul in 1999, the United States strongly supported the commitment, adopted by all OSCE participating States, to adopt anti-discrimination legislation to protect Roma. It is heartening that a number of Central European governments, countries where Roma are the most numerous, have publicly recognized the need to adopt legislation that will protect Roma from the discrimination they face. The adoption last year of the European Union’s “race directive”, which will require all current EU member states, as well as applicant countries to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, should spur this effort.
The Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor the plight of the Roma in the 107th Congress.